Megan McGinnis is Full of Life in Beetlejuice, the Show About Death
The Broadway star on the magic of bringing a movie to the stage
By Richard Whittaker,
2:20PM, Tue. Feb. 6, 2024
Most actors fear dying on stage. Not Megan McGinnis: because as Barbara Maitland in the Broadway in Austin production of Beetlejuice, passing into the afterlife is where the fun begins.
In the touring musical version of Tim Burton’s gothic classic (manifesting this week at the Bass Concert Hall), she and costar Will Burton play Barbara and Adam Maitland, the recently departed couple who find themselves sharing their home with the philistine Deetzes. However, they soon find themselves trying to defend the interlopers' strange and unusual daughter Lydia (Isabella Esler) from the nefarious schemes of low-rent underworld menace Beetlejuice (Justin Collette).
Beetlejuice is McGinnis’ third touring production, having played Liesi in the revival of The Sound of Music “when I was quite young,” she noted, and after that she swore off touring for over a decade. In that time she became a Broadway fixture in such prominent and praised roles as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Éponine in Les Misérables, and Beth March in Little Women, before returning to touring life in 2018 as Bonnie in Come From Away. However, that circuit was a family affair, as her husband Adam Halpin was also in the show, and they were able to bring their young son with them.
Being together with her son and husband made the decision to tour with Come From Away easy: With Beetlejuice, she said, the deciding factor was “the show. I knew I wanted to do the show. No matter how that worked, it was gonna happen.”
The opportunity came when the touring production’s first Barbara, Britney Coleman, left the cast for the recent revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. As a fan of the film and knowing Kerry Butler (who originated the part of Barbara in both the original tryouts at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. and continued on the Broadway run) she was leapt at the chance to audition for the newly-open role.
However, prior to the audition, she had never actually seen the Broadway production. When it opened, she was on the road with Come From Away, and when the spooky musical reopened after the pandemic “we had just moved out of the city to the suburbs, and we weren’t coming in a lot, not as much, just trying to get accustomed to our new lives, so I didn’t see a lot of shows. So I missed it, and I was so sad.” It was only when she was actually cast in the part that she travelled to Philadelphia to see one of Coleman’s last performances. “I went with my husband, who had seen it on Broadway, and every second of it I thought, ‘I am so lucky. I get to work with all of these people and tell this incredibly funny and touching story across the country. I was more thrilled than ever.”
Being back on the road for Beetlejuice “is a little different” from her last tour, she said, “because my family’s at home, so a lot of my life is travelling back on my day off to see my family for 24 hours.”
Unlike other attempts to turn films into stage musicals, Beetlejuice works because it’s already halfway there. “With the spectacular scene in the movie with ‘Day-O,’ it’s telling you it’s a musical,” McGinnis said, and the stage version simply “expands upon the movie. … The movie concentrates more on the Maitlands, but the musical concentrates more on Lydia. It surrounds her, and it makes the musical incredibly touching.”
Part of that increased pathos is in a more nuanced relationship between Adam and Barbara, including more about them never being parents. “There’s this remnant of sadness that they never had that chance, and their relationship with Lydia becomes all that more important because they become these parental figures to her. And boy do I love that journey. I have a child, so there is this maternal instinct that I tap into, and I think it makes their story very deep and believable.”
Now McGinnis gets to make the so-straight-laced-she’s-quirky Barbara Maitland her own. “My Barbara is a lot of me,” she said. “The sort of perfect life that she thinks that she wants and wants to live, I identify with that. Will and I come off stage, and we’ll talk about something in our lives, and we’ll go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so Maitland.’”
But Beetlejuice isn’t just about character and song: it's also filled with spectacle. The blocking for Come From Away was mostly about not walking into other performers. Here’s it’s about avoiding props that spring out of nowhere, or fire. “We have so many special effects,” McGinnis said, “and the magic of it on stage, I think, is more special than in a movie because the magic is being done there, on stage, in front of you.”
However, the biggest danger may not be flames, but becoming a victim of the show’s hilarity – and most especially its agent of chaos, the eponymous Beetlejuice himself. This inevitably leads to struggle with breaking (or, to use the more suitable British theatrical term, corpsing), and the cast doesn’t always win. McGinnis credited/blamed costar Collette’s incredible rapport with the audience as Beetlejuice, which helps make every performance feel fresh but can still deliver the odd curveball. “I would say I am very, very good at not breaking on stage,” said McGinnis. “I’m a rock. But I will admit that Justin has gotten me, one as recently as last week.”
In the middle of act I, right after "Fright of Their Lives," there’s a moment when the giggling demon imitates Barbara. “He does it every night, but there was something about what he did. The audience laughed first, and he kept on it, and he kept doing it over and over again. Then all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye I see Will, and he has a glint of a smile – just a glint – and I lost it.” <>/p>
While that giggle shattered her perfect break-free record, McGinnis isn’t upset. “It’s one of my favorite moments on stage,” she said, adding that “ultimately, when something like that happens, it’s very enjoyable for the audience, because it’s so real.”
Broadway in Austin’s BeetlejuiceBass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, 512/471-2787
Running time: 2 hrs. 30 mins.